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Creating a Menu of Options in Classroom Libraries

JULIE Scullen
 | Jan 29, 2020

If you’ve been to the Cheesecake Factory, you know the menu. The Cheesecake Factory menu reads like a short novel; the pasta menu alone contains more than a dozen items. The online menu boasts 36 different types of cheesecake. There is a full page just for salads, another full page for pizza, and separate pages for sandwiches, seafood, and steak. Their website brags of "more than 250 dishes made from scratch every day."

The first time I dined at the Cheesecake Factory, I was overwhelmed by the volume of choices. I couldn’t decide because everything looked good. Some things looked familiar, but I didn’t want to eat the same thing I always eat. Some things sounded good but had ingredients and descriptions that were unfamiliar. What if it was too spicy or had mushrooms? I hate mushrooms.

My daughter tried to help by narrowing my thinking: “Are you hungry for pasta? Seafood? How about one of their nummy specialties?” This didn’t help one bit—now I wanted some of everything. I was paralyzed at the thought of making the wrong choice. Others around me were having no trouble choosing, which raised my anxiety.

We had to ask the waitress to give us more time. Twice. Finally, I chose three items and asked my daughter to pick what she thought I’d like best of those. She had been to the restaurant before, and she knew me well. My meal was delicious.

As I was reflecting later, it struck me that the emotion I felt as I struggled with the overwhelming menu was the same emotion many students can feel when they enter our school libraries. There are so many choices! Do I want fiction? What kind? Realistic fiction, historical fiction, science fiction? If I ask for guidance, what if someone gives me bad advice?

What teacher hasn’t stumbled across students in the book stacks with a glazed look staring at spines with their hands in their pockets? 

When someone tries to help, the pressure can be even more daunting. Do you want speculative fiction? A dystopian novel? How about dystopian romance? A dystopian adventure? Steampunk? What was the last book you read that you liked? Who is your favorite author? Do you like funny authors?

That indecision brings many of our students to just pull any book with a thin spine off the shelf and run for the checkout.

I am not concerned that classroom libraries would ever supersede our sprawling building libraries—they won’t. We need school libraries to provide something for everyone. Therefore, we need media specialists to curate shelves of books to represent our students and their interests. We trust these professionals to know what our readers need. They have a special menu of magic our classroom teachers can’t access because of time and funding. Classroom teachers can lead students to the right book, but media specialists ensure students have an opportunity to read widely over several years.

Our classroom libraries can become an effective gateway to our building libraries. With the right guidance from someone who sees students every day and knows them well, students can make good choices. When a teacher has conferred with readers several times over weeks and months, that teacher can help students successfully narrow the vast menu of options or broaden it to include new choices. Reluctant readers, in particular, might need a “just right” suggestion to locate a “just right” book. A teacher who has listened to a student’s stories about his or her family might be able to pull something off a classroom shelf and invite that student to “try a few pages to make sure this is for you.” A teacher who knows a student’s traveling basketball team record might have the perfect picture book for him or her. Likewise, a teacher who knows a student likes Gordan Korman, or David Lubar, or Stuart Gibbs will be able not only to point that student to those shelves but also to introduce him or her to similar authors.

Both building and classroom libraries are crucial to the reading success of our students, with each providing a different menu of options and services. Let’s make sure our readers can make use of both.

(In case you are wondering, I had the lasagna.)

Julie Scullen is a former member of the ILA Board of Directors. She taught most of her career in secondary reading intervention classrooms and now serves as Teaching and Learning Specialist for Secondary Reading in Anoka-Hennepin schools in Minnesota, working with teachers of all content areas to foster literacy achievement. She is currently a doctoral candidate at Judson University.

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